45 Best Prison Movies Of All Time Ranked

There's something compelling about a look behind bars –- for many movie fans, prison films are their only experience with the world of incarceration. Prison movies take audiences to places unknown, often bringing us face to face with hardened criminals. Many great prison movies take us deeper, showing us things we didn't expect, whether it's a criminal with surprising kindness, or the brutal conditions faced by inmates the world over. Films about prison can transport us to unique and fascinating worlds, and many successfully hold a mirror up to society, exposing our bizarre desires to see people suffer.

Great prison movies go deeper than this, of course, exposing the remarkable humanity that can exist in prisoner-of-war camps, jails, and chain gangs. They provide insight into this unknown society, and while there are certainly heavy connotations to the prison movie, many subvert them with wicked, often clever humor. Exploring the genre of prison movies yields rich results, especially in a surprisingly diverse slate of films that cover every facet of a life behind bars. In honor of this fascinating, frightening, thrilling, challenging, and sometimes heartwarming genre, here are the 45 best prison movies of all time ranked.

45. Law Abiding Citizen

Directed by F. Gary Gray, "Law Abiding Citizen" is a fascinating portrait of what happens to a person when anything and everything they ever loved is taken from them. Gerard Butler stars as Clyde Shelton, a former CIA employee specializing in the brutal world of assassinations. One fateful evening, his home is the target of a vicious home invasion resulting in the death of his wife and daughter. Things get even worse when the utterly despondent Shelton discovers that the killers get a light sentence, thanks to a plea deal managed by attorney Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx). 

Shelton goes from heartbroken to utterly vengeful and sets out to avenge his family by destroying everyone who ever wronged him. Shelton winds up in jail, but somehow, the killings keep happening. "Release me, or I kill everyone" wouldn't be a credible threat from most people locked away, but when the extraordinarily ruthless Shelton says it, you better believe it. While critics were taken aback by the increasingly nonsensical plot and brutal violence, audiences loved it, and the film pulled in great box office numbers.

44. The Last Castle

There are many great ways to tell stories about prisons, as shown by this list of vastly different films, but one surefire way to make things exciting is to put someone behind bars who's capable of extraordinary things. That's what happens in Rod Lurie's "The Last Castle," which takes the hugely respected General Irwin (the incredible Robert Redford) and court-martials him, placing him in a maximum security military prison.

The prison he's sent to is known as The Castle, a fortress on a legendary scale that's supposedly impossible to break out of. When Irwin arrives, things seem off, but he just wants to keep his head down and serve his time. It becomes increasingly apparent to Irwin that there is serious corruption at the heart of The Castle, in the form of the heartless warden Colonel Winter (James Gandolfini). Irwin can no longer stand idly by, and rallies over 1,000 inmates to rise up against Winter's tyrannical oppression. Despite the generally poor critical reception faced by "The Last Castle," the movie is actually really great. It's an awesome story of standing up for what's right, and how one person can inspire others by sheer willpower.

43. Stir Crazy

When thinking of prison movies, your first thought is likely a dark, violent drama that exposes the underbelly of prisons and the cruelty of prison guards and wardens. "Stir Crazy," directed by legendary actor Sidney Poitier, proves that great prison movies can also be comedies.

The absurd film stars the irresistible comic duo of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, who first starred together in 1976's "Silver Streak." The pair are framed for a bank robbery they didn't commit, and receive a ludicrous 120-year sentence that puts them in jail for the rest of their lives. With nothing but imprisonment facing them forever, the duo try and concoct a way to escape their confines. Strangely enough, the opportunity may just come to them by way of –- you guessed it –- a mechanical bull competition.

Audiences absolutely loved "Stir Crazy," and the 1980 film ended up making over $100 million at the box office –- an incredible result for the '80s. According to IndieWire, the film was the first ever directed by a Black man to earn that much money, making it both a comedic delight and an important piece of history.

42. The Big Doll House

Prison movies collide headfirst with exploitation cinema in "The Big Doll House," a 1971 film starring Judith M. Brown, Roberta Collins, and Pam Grier. In the movie, a group of American women are sent to jail in the Philippines, where they face considerable torment from the prison guards. Sick of the shocking and frequently inhumane treatment, one group of ladies decides to band together to take matters into their own hands plotting a big escape from the Filipino prison.

The film is suitably ridiculous, chock full of nudity and violence, and is quite frankly very much a film of its time that has aged rather poorly. Precisely because of that, "The Big Doll House" is fascinating, anchored by a firecracker performance from Pam Grier and some genuine surprises. It's certainly not a typical prison drama, and it definitely earns points for that, with the film earning its status as a deliciously guilty pleasure.

41. The Prisoner of Shark Island

John Ford is an essential part of American film history, directing countless iconic films including "The Grapes of Wrath," "Stagecoach," and "The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance." While Ford is best known for his contributions to the Western genre, he dabbled in just about every genre you could imagine, and no director has won more Oscars. He even made a great prison movie called "The Prisoner of Shark Island."

The film follows the real-life Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter), a doctor thrown into jail for treating the wounds of President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth. Mudd had no idea who Booth was or what he did, only that he showed up at his door with an injury. Regardless, Mudd was thrown into jail, but not just any jail –- Mudd was shipped off to prison on Shark Island in the West Indies, where brutal conditions threatened the health of every prisoner. Ford always excelled at telling stories about the power of the human spirit, and "The Prisoner of Shark Island" is another compelling prison story you need to see.

40. I Love You Phillip Morris

Another genre that rarely mixes with the world of prisons is romance, but in Glenn Ficarra and John Requa's "I Love You Phillip Morris," love takes center stage in this black comedy prison flick. Jim Carrey stars as long-time con man Steven Russell, whose lifestyle finally comes to haunt him in the form of a prison sentence. In jail, Russell meets the love of his life -– Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor), a fellow inmate. The two strike up a passionate romantic relationship, and when Steven is released from jail, he goes right back to his con man ways, impersonating a lawyer to try and free his love so they can co-exist happily, freed from prison once and for all.

"I Love You Phillip Morris" is darkly funny, but it's also a powerful love story about the lengths people will go to to be happy with one another. Ficarra and Requa direct with a fine touch, nicely balancing a complicated story with a powerful romance.

39. The Hill

With a long and illustrious career as an actor, Sean Connery was best known for being the first actor to portray James Bond on the big screen. Look further into Connery's career and you'll see that he was a heck of a lot more than Bond, and was exceptional in films like Alfred Hitchcock's "Marnie." One of his best early performances came in 1965's "The Hill," directed by five-time Oscar nominee Sidney Lumet.

The film is set in a brutal military prison in North Africa towards the end of World War II. It's a harrowing story of men pushed to the brink, and Connery is electric and explosive as Joe Roberts, a former sergeant major accused of assaulting his commanding officer. Roberts claims he only did it because his CO was going to send him and his squad to their deaths, but his pleas fall on deaf ears, and he's sent to The Hill.

"The Hill" has an outstanding cast including Ossie Davis, Harry Andrews, Roy Kinnear, Ian Hendry, and Sir Michael Redgrave. It's an amazing story of people in harsh conditions, and a fight for survival in the face of evil.

38. American Me

Edward James Olmos is fantastic as Montoyo Santana in 1992's "American Me." While a solid amount of the film takes place in prison, the film is a study of what happens to a person after their time inside, and how they reflect on their life of crime while free. Olmos, who also directed the film, is hugely compelling as it traces three decades of Santana's life while he moves from juvenile hall to reform school, to prison, and back to his life outside. While doing his 18-year prison sentence, Santana rises to the top of the prison drug game and is one of the most feared and revered people inside. When freed, he wants to leave it all behind to start a family and lead an honest life, but his gangster buddies have very different ideas for Santana.

"American Me" equally impressed both critics and audiences, who praised the film for its authenticity. As Roger Ebert noted, "It knows these worlds. The language, the clothes, the attitudes, are all shown with the understated conviction of a director who is sure of his material."

37. Sleepers

One of the most difficult watches on this list, director Barry Levinson's "Sleepers" follows four teenage boys from Hell's Kitchen, New York. The group gets sent to a reform school after they nearly kill someone accidentally. Their punishment ends up being wildly disproportionate for what they did. Their lives become a complete nightmare at the reform school, and they endure horrifying abuse at the hands of the sadistic school guards. The cast is one of the finest assembled on screen, including Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro, Billy Crudup, Minnie Driver, and Ron Eldard.

While "Sleepers" is an unflinching and harrowing experience, it's an important story told with great love and care by Levinson. Based on a book by Lorenzo Carcaterra, it's a story about the power of speaking out against those who wrong you, what humans can go through, and how they endure extraordinary pain and sorrow.

36. Chopper

Eric Bana was one of the busiest actors of the 2000s, starring in "Hulk," "Munich," "Troy," "The Time Traveler's Wife," and more. But it was Bana's first starring role in a feature film that really announced him as an extraordinary talent: 2000's "Chopper," where he exploded onto the scene as notorious criminal Chopper Read. The film, directed by Andrew Dominik, uses flashbacks during one of Chopper's various lengthy prison sentences to trace his history and what made him such a notorious criminal. "Chopper" is punctuated by funny dialogue and shocking, brutal violence that delicately balances humor with an intense crime drama.

Critics mostly loved the film, especially Bana's performance. For Australia's ABC Radio, Alexandra Heller-Nicholas said, "'Chopper' is more than a vehicle for Bana's extraordinary performance; it's an immaculately crafted masterpiece of Australian cinema that feels as fresh, energetic, and provocative today as it was the day it was released."

35. Brubaker

Some 20 years before "The Last Castle," Robert Redford made his mark on the prison movie genre with 1980's "Brubaker." This time, Redford plays Henry Brubaker, a prison warden who goes undercover as an inmate of the small state prison of Wakefield in Arkansas. His goal is to help uncover the corruption that's weaseled its way into the facility like a parasite. What Brubaker finds is worse than he ever imagined, uncovering truly unfathomable conditions. Torture, sexual assault, maggot-infested food, and more atrocities are uncovered. Brubaker reveals himself to be the new warden of the prison, which shocks everyone, but at least the healing can finally begin — except, of course, things aren't that easy, and Brubaker finds himself going head-to-head with those who profit from the corruption at Wakefield.

Brubaker is a challenging film that takes aim at the way profiteering prisons can become deeply and completely inhumane. It's a powerful film with a strong message. A great performance from Redford, plus striking supporting turns from Yaphet Kotto, Jane Alexander, Morgan Freeman, and Murray Hamilton, help "Brubaker" linger long after it's over.

34. The Big House

From 1930, George W. Hill's "The Big House" stands the test of time as one of the all-time great prison movies. Chester Morris and Wallace Beery star as Morgan and Butch respectively, the two unofficial leaders of the inmates at the wildly overcrowded jail. The two share a cell together, and they're soon joined by Kent (Robert Montgomery), who is sentenced to 10 years for manslaughter. Morgan is preparing to finally leave prison after a long sentence, but a mix-up involving possession of a knife threatens his once-promising freedom. Morgan eventually escapes, but it's not long before he's thrown back in. The conditions at the prison get worse with each passing day, which leads to a large-scale riot that threatens everyone involved.

"The Big House" was a smash hit, earning four Oscar nominations and winning two: Best Sound, and Best Writing for Francis Marion's excellent screenplay. Marion's script cleverly balances the personal stories of Butch, Morgan, and Kent, as well as their vicious warden James (Lewis Stone), with the overarching systemic problems of the prison system itself.

33. Bronson

Tom Hardy is a hugely versatile actor, tackling an impressive array of projects throughout his career. One of his boldest and strangest roles was as notorious British criminal Charles Bronson, who gained a reputation for being the most violent prisoner in all of Britain. The bold performance was directed by the equally bold visionary Nicolas Winding Refn ("Drive"), and the two made a great pairing in this exquisitely bizarre, unique portrait of the rise and fall of one of the world's most fascinating prisoners. As an inmate, Bronson was regularly put in solitary confinement, which the film ingenuously uses as an opportunity for the character to narrate his life.

Critics were hugely impressed by Hardy in the lead role. Chris Chang of Film Comment said, "The film can barely contain Tom Hardy's performance. It's a Method turn so bloodily immersive it's hard to imagine the actor getting his head straight afterwards."

32. The Longest Yard

Burt Reynolds was a major Hollywood star in the 1970s, headlining films like "Smokey and the Bandit," "Shamus," and one of his biggest hits, "Deliverance." While he's great in countless pictures, "The Longest Yard," a wonderful blend of the sports and prison genres, may just be the film he was born to star in. He's a sensation as Paul Crewe, a disgraced football player imprisoned for stealing his girlfriend's car. While locked up, he attracts the attention of the warden, Rudolph Hazen (Eddie Albert), who loves football and organizes a football league comprised of prison guards.

At the request of Hazen, Crewe forms a football team of his own, comprised of prisoners, to play against the prison guards as a way to help improve the warden's team. Director Robert Aldrich's "The Longest Yard" gives Reynolds a fantastic opportunity to showcase his magnificent charisma, as well as the full capabilities of his action hero persona.

31. King Rat

Taking place at a prisoner-of-war camp run by Japanese forces during World War II, "King Rat" is a fascinating look at the remarkable Corporal King (George Segal), a wheeling and dealing inmate. King seems to live by his own rules, conniving and manipulating everything in sight while operating a black market enterprise that keeps him in great condition. Meanwhile, others at the camp struggle to survive the brutal conditions, cruelty, beatings, torment, and starvation. King will do whatever is necessary to keep his enterprise afloat, including breeding rats and selling the meat to other officers.

While many films about prisoners of war focus on the battle between inmates and their captors, "King Rat" is a unique portrayal of infighting among prisoners. As King shamelessly bribes the camp officers to give him better living conditions, it draws the considerable ire of his fellow inmates, unleashing a compelling conflict. The movie, which features great actors like Tom Courtenay, James Fox, and Patrick O'Neal alongside Segal, is an interesting look at the lengths people go to survive, and even thrive, in horrific circumstances.

30. Papillon

Franklin J. Schaffner's epic 1973 film "Papillon" marks Steve McQueen's first appearance on this list, but it's certainly not the last. In one of the great prison escape films, McQueen stars as Henri Charriere, a convicted murderer. He's known as "Papillon" (French for "butterfly") to everyone in a penal colony in French Guiana, as he has a butterfly tattoo on his chest. Under brutal and unfair conditions, Charriere strikes up an unlikely friendship with the far less physically imposing Louis Dega (Dustin Hoffman), a big-time forger. While they have little in common, they are very much bonded by their desperation to leave the colony and continue to live.

The prison is extraordinary in its cruelty, rife with solitary confinement and terrible living conditions, with people willing to sell one another out at the drop of a hat in order to maintain their own survival. "There is no escape," the inmates are constantly told, but the bold and fearless Charriere plots a daring jailbreak which proves to be the greatest challenge of his life. "Papillon" was a big hit with audiences, putting up big box office numbers and proving yet again that Steve McQueen was an unstoppable star.

29. Riot in Cell Block 11

A rousing story about people who won't take it anymore, director Don Siegel's "Riot in Cell Block 11" follows the prisoners at a maximum-security prison who riot for better living conditions. Siegel's film takes a unique approach to create a prison drama. As Time Out explains, the film was practically a "documentary in approach — low budget, no stars, Folsom Prison locations, inmates as extras." Despite the use of this style, the film is full of beautifully composed shots, and it's an emotional story about people rising up against institutionalized cruelty. As it's dedicated to portraying realism, the ending may leave a bitter taste in your mouth, but that speaks to the film's commitment to showcasing the real trials and tribulations that prisoners can face.

The film impressed critics when it was released in 1954, and they were moved by the movie's sharp social commentary. A.H. Weiler of The New York Times wrote, "The grim business of melodrama behind prison walls, so often depicted in standard, banal fashion in films, is given both tension and dignity in 'Riot in Cell Block 11.'"

28. Caged

Prison movies are often dominated by men — in fact, in many of them, you'd be hard-pressed to find a single woman at all. But looking back at Classical Hollywood, you'll actually find that quite a few films on the topic were told from a female point of view, and the women-in-prison subgenre was a fairly popular way to delve into this largely unexplored realm.

The best film of the subgenre is "Caged," which broke free of the expectations of an exploitation film, resulting in critical success. The film earned three Academy Award nominations, including Best Actress for Eleanor Parker. Parker stars as Marie, who is sentenced to prison for being an accessory to an armed robbery that claimed the life of her husband. To make matters worse, when she's behind bars, Marie discovers that she's pregnant. At just 19 years old, Marie experiences the horrors of prison as she fights to stay above it all, so she can do her time and start a new life on the outside.

27. The Hurricane

Denzel Washington is one of our great living actors, and he's capable of portraying every kind of character under the sun with impressive energy and remarkable authenticity. In Norman Jewison's "The Hurricane," Washington plays Rubin Carter, a middleweight-class boxer at the top of his game in the 1960s. Carter has everything it takes to become the next great boxing legend, but his life and sporting career are upended when he's thrown in jail for murder. The horrifying thing is not only that Carter is completely innocent, but he wasn't even in the same place where the murder took place — yet a single false testimony seals Carter's tragic fate.

"The Hurricane" is an emotional, involving story about Carter's rise and 20-year prison sentence, as well as the fascinating story of underprivileged Canadian youth who helps lead the movement to prove Carter's innocence and ensure his long-overdue freedom. Washington is fantastic in the role, delivering an emotional and muscular performance as a man horribly wronged by the system, with the performance earning him a well-deserved Oscar nomination.

26. American History X

"American History X" is director Tony Kaye's first and finest film, garnering outstanding acclaim from fans and earning a solid spot on the IMDb Top 250. The film follows Edward Norton in an outstanding performance as Derek, a man imprisoned for committing a hate crime. Derek is a virulent racist and anti-Semite, proudly brandishing a tattoo of a swastika on his chest. While inside, Derek gets to the roots of his hatred, and prison offers the opportunity for Derek's reform. When he gets out, it becomes abundantly clear to him that his younger brother Danny (Edward Furlong) is on the same hateful path he once was, and Derek tries to save him before it's too late.

The film features beautiful black-and-white cinematography while Derek is in prison, and the effect clearly establishes the change in the character's mindset. The film features shocking language and extremely brutal instances of violence, but it's an important movie about how even people who seem far beyond help can actually change. Despite its difficult content, it's a surprisingly optimistic film in some ways, as well as a unique and exceptional prison movie.

If you or a loved one has experienced a hate crime, contact the VictimConnect Hotline by phone at 1-855-4-VICTIM or by chat for more information or assistance in locating services to help. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

25. Kiss of the Spider Woman

Many great prison movies center around an unexpected friendship, and director Hector Babenco's beautiful drama "Kiss of the Spider Woman" is one of the best. The film takes place in a Brazilian penitentiary, where a pair of very different prisoners share a single cell. One is Luis Molina (William Hurt), a homosexual man who has no qualms embracing his femininity. The other is Valentin Arregui (Raul Julia), a macho leftist revolutionary. Arregui is fascinated but largely disgusted by Molina's behavior as he spends his time re-enacting scenes from one of his favorite films. Yet during their time together, the two form a powerful and unexpected bond, as they come to understand and appreciate their vast differences.

"Kiss of the Spider Woman" is a tender and striking portrayal of life behind bars, and both Hurt and Julia exhibit impressive and potent chemistry. The film is based on a book that was also adapted into a Tony Award-winning musical. The movie was also the recipient of major critical acclaim that translated into four Academy Award nominations, including a win for William Hurt for Best Actor.

24. 12 Monkeys

Though Terry Gilliam's mind-bending science fiction film "12 Monkeys" isn't typically thought of as a prison movie, it more than qualifies as it spends most of its time behind bars. The fascinating movie takes us to a future where humans live underground, as diseases and viruses have obliterated civilization as we know it. In exchange for some time off his prison sentence, James Cole (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to try and uncover the secrets of the virus that destroyed humanity on Earth. But his mission is far more difficult than he imagined, and he's sent back to the wrong year and placed in a mental institution. The only one who seems truly interested in helping Cole on his quest is the unpredictably manic Jeffrey (Brad Pitt).

"12 Monkeys" is glorious sci-fi that keeps you guessing, and thanks to several mind-blowing plot twists, you'll never guess where this twisty prison thriller is going. Director Gilliam has made a career out of fascinating, fantastical stories, including the exquisite "Brazil." "12 Monkeys" finds the director working at the top of his game, with fabulous and committed performances from Willis and Pitt.

23. Scum

If you like your prison movies as nasty as life in confinement itself, you can't do much better than Alan Clarke's brutal and unrelenting "Scum," a landmark film for British realism. The 1979 effort explores the horrors of the British borstal system, which was a type of detention center built with the intention of reforming young people. As the film shows, borstals were horrifying places that treated inhabitants like dirt, resulting in countless displays of shocking violence and very little genuine success in their stated goals.

"Scum" stars a young Ray Winstone as the relentlessly angry Carlin, who needs to use violence to ensure his survival in the borstal. The film is unafraid to show the nitty-gritty details of life in the institutions, with uncompromising depictions of suicide, sexual assault, racism, and violence. It's a difficult watch, but an important one, as the film exposes an important moment in British history many would rather forget.

If you or anyone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, help is available. Visit the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network website or contact RAINN's National Helpline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

22. Rescue Dawn

Werner Herzog is a brilliant, challenging filmmaker, making beautiful, complicated movies while emerging as an essential part of the German New Wave. Films like "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Fitzcarraldo" pushed boundaries, and he's also made documentaries like the bleak "Into the Abyss" about capital punishment. Before his documentary about prison, he made "Rescue Dawn," another one of his great films pitting man against nature. The movie is a biopic of fighter pilot turned prisoner of war Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale in another incredible physical transformation).

Taking place during the Vietnam War, "Rescue Dawn" is a powerful testament to the human spirit as Dengler and his fellow captives endure starvation, brutal violence, and other atrocities as they hope to plot a daring escape. The film was a hit with critics: Bob Mondello of NPR called the movie "a gripping real-life thriller," while Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called it "an effective, unassuming and old-fashioned action-adventure."

21. Hunger

Not to be confused with the iconic actor, director Steve McQueen — whose 2013 film "12 Years A Slave" won Best Picture – made his debut with the uncompromising "Hunger." The film takes place in Northern Ireland in 1981, where Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), an IRA member, starts a hunger strike in prison stemming from the Dirty Protests. Fassbender is absolutely stunning in the role, delivering a hugely committed physical and emotional performance as Sands. The movie is a seething depiction of a man's extraordinary mission to be listened to.

McQueen's unflinching debut feels like an essential historical document celebrating the extraordinary efforts of Bobby Sands. It's a challenging watch as McQueen's camera never backs down from scenes of torture and human strife. The movie focuses more on feelings rather than historical context, which makes things all the more brutal. Critics and audiences alike were moved by "Hunger," and the movie walked away with multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival.

20. Bad Boys

Not to be confused with Michael Bay's 1995 buddy cop hit starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, this "Bad Boys" was released 12 years earlier. Rick Rosenthal's "Bad Boys" follows the life of Mick O'Brien (Sean Penn), a petty criminal living in Chicago. One night, O'Brien goes out to commit one of his typical crimes of stealing from his enemy, but things go terribly wrong: his best friend winds up killed, and O'Brien ends up accidentally killing a young boy (who ends up being his rival's younger brother) while trying to escape police clutches. Because he's under 18, O'Brien is sent to a juvenile correctional facility instead of an adult prison. O'Brien attempts to adjust to life behind bars, but things get complicated when his rival Paco (Esai Morales) also winds up in the same facility, out to avenge the death of his brother.

"Bad Boys" marks one of Penn's earliest film roles, and he delivers a performance filled with grit and anger, but also a surprising sensitivity that helped make him a major Hollywood star. The film doesn't exactly reinvent the wheel, but it's a hugely entertaining and evocative prison drama well worth seeing.

19. Brawl in Cell Block 99

Wait a second, is that Vince Vaughn — comedy star of films like "Wedding Crashers" and "Couples Retreat" — starring in a gritty, hyper-violent prison movie? In a stunning transformation, Vaughn is practically unrecognizable as former boxer Bradley Thomas, who falls on hard times and becomes a drug runner after finding himself out of work. When a drug deal goes wrong, Thomas finds himself slapped with a seven-year sentence and placed in prison. While in jail, Thomas' wife is kidnapped, and he's forced to follow the kidnapper's rules in order to ensure the survival of his wife and their unborn child.

S. Craig Zahler's "Brawl in Cell Block 99" moves at a slow and hypnotic pace, and long stretches of eerie quiet are punctuated by some truly horrific, gory violence. This film is absolutely not for the faint of heart, but it's a gripping and impactful story about a man in impossible circumstances trying to save the only thing in life he really cares about. Vaughn delivers an unexpected but exceptional performance, channeling incredible rage into a quiet character capable of unbelievable violence.

18. Birdman of Alcatraz

Burt Lancaster is one of cinema's great actors, starring in memorable movies like "The Swimmer," "From Here to Eternity," and "Elmer Gantry." One of his most impressive performances comes in John Frankenheimer's 1962 film "Birdman of Alcatraz." Lancaster plays Robert Stroud, a fascinating (and real) man imprisoned in the notorious Alcatraz. Surrounded by a life of violence, Stroud winds up in prison for murder, and when he discovers his brother tried to visit him but was denied, he becomes utterly enraged and ends up fatally wounding a guard. Though he's sentenced to death, his mother successfully campaigns for his sentence to be reduced to life in prison. There's a catch, of course, and it's a brutal one: Stroud must spend the rest of his time in solitary confinement.

Stroud's story is one of incredible defiance — instead of being utterly destroyed by his solitary existence, he teaches himself multiple languages and develops a fascination with birds, collecting them in cages and studying them. Eventually, he becomes something of an ornithologist, caring for birds and figuring out how to cure them. "Birdman of Alcatraz" is a unique, original film, telling a surprising and unforgettable story.

17. Midnight Express

Billy Hayes (Brad Davis) is an everyday American college student visiting Turkey. When he attempts to smuggle hash out of Istanbul, he's apprehended by Turkish police and thrown into jail with a four-year sentence. Hayes undergoes a brutal four years in incarceration, and can't wait to finally go home. At the end of his sentence, he discovers something worse than his wildest nightmares: an additional 30 years have been added to his time. It seems like there's absolutely no way out alive for Hayes, and he makes the difficult choice — if he ever wants to get back home, he's going to have to escape.

Alan Parker's "Midnight Express" earned an impressive six Oscar nominations, winning two, for Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay by Oliver Stone. What really impresses about "Midnight Express" is Parker's commitment to realism and authenticity -– as Roger Ebert observed, "Parker succeeds in making the prison into a full, real, rounded world, a microcosm of human behavior."

16. Brute Force

In Westgate Penitentiary, the inmates are fed up. The prison is an overcrowded disaster, with leaky roofs, inedible food, and tortuous guards. Though the prisoners live in squalor, chief guard Captain Munsey (Hume Cronyn) has no problem with the conditions –- he sees the inmates as less than human, and feels that the qualities of the prison are exactly what they should be. Unfortunately for Munsey, the prisoners don't exactly see things that way, particularly Joe Collins (Burt Lancaster). Collins begins to instigate a riot and a full-scale rebellion: "Nothing's okay. Never was and it never will be. Not till we're out. You get that? Out!" he tells his fellow prisoners.

Directed by Jules Dassin (best known for his heist masterpiece "Rififi"), "Brute Force" unfolds with tremendous rage and fury. It successfully allows us to understand and appreciate the plight of the prisoners, and while it can feel odd to root for criminals, the horrifying treatment they endure will have you cheering for Collins and company to make it out alive.

15. In the Name of the Father

Gerry Conlon (Daniel Day-Lewis) may have been in London when a bomb went off in a pub, killing innocent bystanders inside, but Gerry had absolutely nothing to do with it. Despite being a distinctly apolitical person, Belfast-born Conlon is stunned when he gets accused of being a member of the IRA and charged with the bombing he knew nothing about. Under intense emotional and physical abuse from police forces, Conlon is coerced into confessing to a bombing he didn't commit, which leads to the imprisonment of his other family members as accessories to the crime, including his father Giuseppe (Pete Postlewaite). The film tracks the incredible journey Gerry Conlon went on for more than 15 years to attempt to clear his name, in which he's assisted by passionate lawyer Gareth Peirce (Emma Thompson).

"In the Name of the Father" is a powerful and emotional movie story centered around a horrible miscarriage of justice. Director Jim Sheridan wisely hones in on the human element of the story, and while the hardships of prison are acutely observed, it's the focus on Conlon and his family and the injustice they face that makes the film soar.

14. Le Trou

Jacques Becker's magnificently tense "Le Trou" tells an awe-inspiring story about an incredible attempt to escape. Four prisoners share a cell. To pass the time, the group, who have developed a close bond over their time behind bars and with long sentences ahead of them, conspire to escape to a life of freedom. The dynamic shifts when a fifth prisoner, the quiet and rule-abiding Claude (Marc Michel), enters their cell. The group reluctantly takes on considerable risk, exposing their plan to Claude, who ends up being on board. Their way out is directly below them, and over a nerve-shredding few days, they methodically break through a concrete floor using the post of one of their beds.

The prison break film is nothing new and had even been seen plenty of times before by the time "Le Trou" was released in 1960. Still, the film stands head and shoulders above many of its counterparts thanks to great performances and Becker's world-class ability to mastermind the building of tension. A film like "Le Trou" leaves you utterly breathless, as you wonder if this group of determined prisoners can actually achieve their goal.

13. The Green Mile

Get your tissues ready, as few films pluck at your heartstrings more effectively than "The Green Mile." The film stars Tom Hanks as Paul Edgecomb, a prison guard who works on death row. The lives of Edgecomb and his fellow guards are changed forever when they meet John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan), an inmate set to be executed for murdering two girls. The film is based on a Stephen King novel, though it substitutes scares and horror for tremendous emotional heft.

Frank Darabont's film features one of the most devastating deaths in movie history, and it's so heartbreaking that even the prison guards performing the execution can't hold back their tears while it's happening. "The Green Mile" was an enormous success at the box office, while also earning critical acclaim and four Academy Award nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor nod for breakthrough star Michael Clarke Duncan. The movie is also extremely popular among fans, enjoying a spot in the IMDb Top 250 films.

12. The Great Escape

Typically, prison break films follow the escape of a select few ingenious prisoners, but "The Great Escape" takes things up a notch with a plan to evacuate hundreds of people from a prisoner-of-war camp in Poland during World War II. Many of the prisoners at this camp are known for their multiple escape attempts, and they're all brought to the same camp in an effort to keep an extremely close eye on them. "There will be no escapes from this camp," one of the commanding officers claims, although those prove to be famous last words.

"The Great Escape" was an enormous success at the box office, raking in over $11 million, an impressive sum for 1963. It also features an absolutely incredible motorcycle stunt that needs to be seen to be believed. The movie contains knockout performances from a dynamite cast, including Steve McQueen, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, James Garner, James Coburn, and Donald Pleasance. "The Great Escape" is a wonderful example of thrills and entertainment that only big-screen, epic cinema can provide.

11. Escape from Alcatraz

There's a reason the Alcatraz prison is so legendary. It served as a place for some of the most frightening and dangerous prisoners to go, while its island location made it incredibly secure and all but impossible to escape. That is until the cunning bank robber Frank Morris (Clint Eastwood) arrived. As easily gleaned from the title, 1979's "Escape from Alcatraz" charts Morris' mission to escape the most impenetrable prison the world's ever seen. Morris is a quiet presence and his slender frame makes him a target for the other inmates, though his remarkable strength makes them quickly back off. In order to escape, he'll have to outsmart the warden (Patrick McGoohan), who takes tremendous pride in the fact that nobody has ever escaped thanks to the facility's incredibly high levels of security.

"Escape from Alcatraz" marked the final collaboration between actor Eastwood and director Don Siegel –- the pair previously worked together on "Coogan's Bluff," "Two Mules for Sister Sara," "The Beguiled," and "Dirty Harry." The two have an impressive body of work together, but the gritty and fascinating "Escape from Alcatraz" may just be their best.

10. The Bridge on the River Kwai

The only prison movie on this list with the distinction of winning the coveted Best Picture Oscar, David Lean's amazing "The Bridge on the River Kwai" is an epic through and through. The film won an impressive seven Oscars in total, including Best Actor for Alec Guinness, Best Editing, and Best Cinematography.

The movie follows a group of British prisoners of war forced to build a railway bridge in enemy-occupied Burma. "If you work hard, you will be treated well," camp commander Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) tells the POWs. "But if you do not work hard, you will be punished." What sounds like a fairly reasonable request is soon revealed to be completely insidious, as the "hard work" required is more excruciating and physically demanding than anyone could have imagined.

Director David Lean has a phenomenal ability to make films on a massive scale while retaining an impressive intimacy that makes it feel as if you're right there alongside the characters within Lean's enormous worlds. It's a thrilling, frightening, brutal, and humane story that is worth every second of its mammoth 161-minute runtime.

9. A Prophet

French actor Tahar Rahim delivered one of contemporary film's great performances in "A Prophet." Rahim stars as Malik El Djebena, who from a young age has been involved in a life of crime. At the age of 19, Malik is put in jail for six years for assaulting a police officer. Alone and terrified, Malik is unable to read or write, which is observed by the mobster Cesar Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Cesar is a powerhouse in prison, and most of the inmates are terrified by him, but he takes Malik under his wing, leading to grave consequences.

Director Jacques Audiard, who also co-wrote the screenplay, has amazing control of "A Prophet," not wasting a single minute of the movie's two-and-a-half hours. It's a film that takes note of intricate details of life behind bars and features a beautiful score courtesy of the legendary Alexandre Desplat. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Film and won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. Critics also adored the film, with Brian Eggert of Deep Focus Review calling the movie "an incisive crime saga told within the confines of concrete walls and deprived humanity."

8. I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang

James Allen (the incomparable Paul Muni) has recently returned from the harsh battlefields of World War I. Allen is a man who wants nothing but the very best for himself, so he travels America with hopes of finding a life that satisfies him, as the war made him restless. During his journey to peace, Allen is wrongly implicated in a robbery he didn't commit and is sentenced to 10 years on a chain gang. He's horrified by the exhausting and savage conditions that come with life on a chain gang, where he's put to hard labor and whipped by unrelenting guards the moment his productivity decreases. Unable to bear the agony, Allen escapes from his chains and makes a run for it.

Mervyn LeRoy's "I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang" has more than stood the test of time, and this 1932 film feels as prescient as it was nearly a century ago. The film received three Oscar nominations, including Best Picture (losing to "Cavalcade"), and it was well-received by critics. Variety called the movie "a picture with guts. It grips with its stark realism and packs lots of punch."

7. Stalag 17

Billy Wilder is one of Hollywood's all-time great writers and directors, best remembered for magnificent comedies like "Some Like it Hot" and "The Apartment," as well as the satirical film noir "Sunset Blvd." Those who know Wilder, however, can attest to the fact that he's a jack of all trades and a master of them too, directing and co-writing the sensational prison drama "Stalag 17." The film follows a group of American Air Force members in a vast German prisoner-of-war camp during World War II. While it's certainly dramatic, it features a great deal of Wilder's wicked sense of humor, and the film shines with dark comedic moments.

"Stalag 17" is adored by critics and audiences alike and features an outstanding cast that includes William Holden, Robert Strauss, Otto Preminger, Don Taylor, and Richard Erdman. Holden won the Oscar for Best Actor for "Stalag 17," in which he delivered one of the shortest awards speeches ever.

6. Chicken Run

"Chicken Run" may be a surprising entry on our list of the best prison movies of all time, but it's an extremely worthy one. While it may not actually take place in a penitentiary, the Aardman Studios animated classic ingenuously turns a chicken farm into a prison. Things seem rather peaceful at the Tweedy Farm, but Ginger the chicken (Julia Sawalha) and Rocky the rooster (Mel Gibson) uncover a shocking secret: the Tweedys are planning to kill any chicken who can no longer lay eggs, leading the birds to organize a daring escape to save their lives.

It's definitely the single funniest film on this list, with breathtaking stop-motion animation bringing this incredible world of chickens to life. The film drew in enormous box office results, bringing in over $200 million worldwide, and the film received immense critical acclaim as well. "Chicken Run" is an incredible reminder of the power of animation, drawing upon numerous classic prison movies to create an entirely unique, hilarious, and delightful experience.

5. Grand Illusion

Jean Renoir's exceptionally potent anti-war film, 1937's "Grand Illusion," is an all-time classic. It's a war film almost entirely devoid of action, as the film takes place in a World War I German prison camp. After a pair of French soldiers make repeated attempts to escape, they find themselves moved to a menacing fortress with high levels of security, under the watchful eye of the imposing Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim in a fantastic performance).

Renoir's stunning movie is an incisive look at the class divide and the madness of war, as well as a remarkable character study. "Grand Illusion" is regularly celebrated by critics, with famed film critic Pauline Kael of the New Yorker called the movie "one of the true masterpieces of the screen." Kevin Maher of the Times agreed, calling Renoir's masterpiece "a peerless film that makes sweeping rhetorical statements about the futility of war while maintaining a laser-sharp focus on an ensemble of meticulously drawn characters."

4. Starred Up

David Mackenzie's "Starred Up" is the most recent film in the top reaches of the list, but it's a rare example of a movie that becomes an instant classic upon release. The film is an inciting portrait of relentless male rage, channeled beautifully by exquisite performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Jack O'Connell. O'Connell stars as Eric, a hyper-violent young man who's experienced violence his whole life, who is transferred from a juvenile center into an adult prison. It's there where he reunites with his raging bull of a father, Neville (Mendelsohn), who is serving a life sentence. Eric appears to be beyond any sort of rehabilitation, but a tough volunteer therapist named Oliver (Rupert Friend) refuses to give up on him.

"Starred Up" is a remarkably fresh take on anger, and its ability to seep into your body like a parasite and completely take control of you. It's a film bristling with rage but also humanity, and it's a difficult but rewarding watch. It received nearly universal acclaim from critics, with A.O. Scott of The New York Times calling the movie "tough, violent, and profane...anchored by superb performances."

3. Cool Hand Luke

"What we've got here is...failure to communicate" goes the famous line from the effortlessly cool movie "Cool Hand Luke," which features an incredible performance from screen icon Paul Newman. Newman plays Luke, a man sent to a Florida chain gang for two years. Luke is effortlessly suave and has no interest in following orders, which makes him the source of admiration and inspiration for his fellow inmates. Nothing can seem to break him down, despite the best efforts of the warden and the guards. The only thing that stands a chance to break Luke's spirit is a savage solitary cell known as "the box."

The film was a smash hit, earning a whopping $16.2 million at the box office, which was extremely impressive for 1967. Newman was nominated for an Oscar for the movie, but the film's lone win came for supporting actor George Kennedy, who delivers a wonderful performance as Dragline, the chain gang's resident heavy.

2. A Man Escaped

French master filmmaker Robert Bresson has a notably distant style, and he employs largely non-professional actors, limited music and stylistic choices to tell his stories. While that may sound a bit boring, "A Man Escaped" is exceptionally tense and exciting and features Bresson at his most muscular and exhilarating. Unlike many of the director's films, "A Man Escaped" actually has quite a bit of music, courtesy of one Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The film has received extraordinary critical acclaim, landing a berth on Sight and Sound's list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time.

The movie keeps a close eye on prisoner of war Fontaine (the excellent Francois Leterrier in his first-ever role), who is being held in a Nazi POW camp. Fontaine receives word that he is to be executed, which spurs him to devise an impressive plan to escape, though his plans are thrown for a loop when Fontaine gets a cellmate. Luckily, his cellmate is every bit as interested in escaping as Fontaine is, and the two work together using materials in the prison to devise a daring exit. It all culminates in a breathless extended sequence of the titular moment, which stands mightily as perhaps the greatest escape scene in film history. If you haven't heard of "A Man Escaped" before, check it out — you won't find many better films than this one.

1. The Shawshank Redemption

It had to be "Shawshank." The extraordinary film adapted from a Stephen King novella is a hopeful, nearly perfect experience about an unexpected friendship formed behind prison walls. "The Shawshank Redemption" is one of the most popular movies among audiences ever, and it has the impressive distinction of consistently being the single highest-rated film on IMDb. When Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) is given not one, but two life sentences for a double murder, he is sent to Shawshank prison. It's there that he forms a strong bond with Red (Morgan Freeman), a fellow inmate who brings in contraband. The two find themselves leaning on each other through countless difficult situations and the unrelenting bleakness that comes with life behind bars.

Andy and Red's friendship is one of cinema's finest, and that's largely thanks to brilliant, layered performances from both Robbins and Freeman. So many prison movies are endlessly bleak, forcing audiences to stare directly into the nadir of humanity, but Andy and Red are a beautiful, inspirational counter to that darkness. The movie features moments of intense drama and some genuinely surprising moments, which all come together in a joyous conclusion.